DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, there's no question that recycling is a good thing, and taking that blue tub out to the curb is an easy way to feel good about yourself. But St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra tells us that a lot of what you think is getting recycled probably isn't.
VERONIQUE LACAPRA, BYLINE: Remember the days when recycling meant prying the staples out of office paper, meticulously washing bottles and cans and taking everything, carefully separated, to a drop-off center? Now?
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LACAPRA: I just toss it all into a big, blue dumpster in the alley behind my house. Single-stream has made recycling a lot easier for consumers. But then you see a garbage truck picking up recycling and wonder...
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LACAPRA: ...Is it just headed for a landfill? It turns out it's not. Single-stream recycling ends up at a place called a materials recovery facility, or MRF - as in M-R-F - for short. A MRF is part warehouse, part industrial plant. A single facility can process hundreds of tons every day, using workers and high-tech machines. Brent Batliner manages the St. Louis area recycling division of Republic Services. He's standing next to something called an optical sorter.
BRENT BATLINER: This machine is like a large grocery store scanner. It's got infrared scanners that, as material passes underneath it, it will read the chemical makeup of the bottle.
LACAPRA: This optical sorter is set to scan for HDPE, or number two plastic. When a milk jug or detergent bottle reaches the scanner, a row of air jets sends it flying off the conveyor and into a storage bunker 25 feet below.
BATLINER: Pops it right off the belt.
LACAPRA: There are more optical sorters - a machine with a magnetic belt to capture steel and one with spinning magnets that repel aluminum. But even with all that high-tech equipment, single-stream recycling is far from perfect. Batliner says some of the residential single-stream recycling here does end up at a landfill. Part of the problem is - well, you. While you pat yourself on the back for the plastic bags and greasy pizza boxes you try to recycle, the MRFs can't process them.
GARY GILLIAM: People sometimes want to put a lawnmower motor in. You know, well, it's steel. But it's not what we do here.
LACAPRA: That's Gary Gilliam. In his 20 years with Resource Management, which runs another St. Louis area MRF, Gilliam has seen it all.
GILLIAM: One of the guys came in one day with a hand grenade.
LACAPRA: It turned out to be a fake. Contamination is a bigger problem. Mixing everything together is convenient, but it leads to wet paper and bits of broken glass that can't be sorted.
SUSAN COLLINS: As we often say, you can't unscramble an egg.
LACAPRA: Susan Collins, who directs the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, says what single-stream wins in volume, it sacrifices in quality.
COLLINS: In terms of preserving the quality of materials so that the maximum materials collected can actually be recycled, single-stream is one of the worst options.
LACAPRA: Collins says about a quarter of single-stream recycling goes to the dump. For glass, that loss can be as high as 40 percent. Even so, in the constant tug-of-war between quality and convenience, convenience wins. And while single-stream processing increases in popularity, the trade-off is apparent. For NPR News, I'm Veronique LaCapra.
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